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One Salsa, Two Salsas: Red Salsa & Green Salsa
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One Salsa, Two Salsas: Red Salsa & Green Salsa

I love salsas. It’s fair to say that, for Mexicans, the salsa is the soul of a dish. No matter how lavish or simple, extravagant or humble, a meal without salsa is simply not a meal in any Mexican household. And while Mexican cooks like my mother are thankful for their blenders, food processors and immersion blenders, they will still tell you that there is nothing—absolutely nothing—like a salsa de molcajete (mortar and pestle sauce). It’s just magical.

The first rule of salsas is the most important rule: all are made according to their uses. The second rule of salsas is: You can’t start a salsa unless you know how you’ll eat it (same as the first rule, like Salsa Club). El “cómo” determina cómo la como (“the ‘how’ determines how I'll eat it").

Salsas are more than mere vehicles of spice, heat and flavor. They also hold one additional property that give each one its unique, magical character: texture. Sure, we’re all familiar with chunky salsas readily available in any supermarket, with beautifully chopped, perfectly square bits of tomatoes and onion, some chile seeds, and liquid. We’ve all read recipes that ask for tomatoes to be cut into coarse hexagons or perfect polyhedrons. To Mexicans that’s not salsa; that’s salad. On the other hand, salsas can be smooth, even silky and yes, you will find many nut-based sauces with this body and consistency, such as salsa de cacahuate and, of course, mole poblano. But if it’s too smooth, it only exists to add flavor and nothing more. But a salsa should add texture and nuance, like a chunky avocado salsa, verdant, fresh, and fiery, on a hot taco al pastor, the small lumps of avocado mingling with the crispy grilled bits of marinated pork and fresh onions. OMG. Take me to the taco mechanic now!

As for the molcajete, the mortar and pestle so prized by almost every pre-Columbian civilization in Mexico and Central America, they are readily available at many places and range in prices. I suggest a standard 4-cup molcajete, since it will be useful for the rest of your life. Think of it as an heirloom, like a cast iron pan. If you take care of it, your molcajete will take care of you, and you can bequeath it to your children and beyond.

These red and green salsas de molcajete recipes are for tacos and they prove that texture makes a difference, even adding flavor and fire to your favorite antojitos ("little whims" or appetizers). They’re good on their own or as bases to which you can add more ingredients such as cilantro or epazote. Or add more water or chicken stock and purée in a blender until smooth if you want to make enchiladas. If you don’t have a molcajete, a simple blender, food processor or immersion (stick) blender will do just fine. In fact, it’s better to forego a fancy, high-speed professional grade blender and work with a run-of-the-mill household one instead. You’re looking to control the consistency and texture, which is what a molcajete allows you to do.

More importantly, don’t be scared. In cooking, you should always be fearless. ¡Buen provecho!

Green Salsa

Makes about 1 cup

Ingredients

  • 6-8 ounces tomatillos, in their husks (about 3 or 4 each)
  • 1-1.5 ounces onions (about 1/4 of an onion), sliced perpendicularly, root intact
  • 1 green jalapeño pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, in their skins 
  • Salt, to taste
  • Water, as needed

Method

1) In a dry, ungreased cast iron skillet or griddle pan over medium heat, place all the ingredients and roast until blackened: about 10 minutes for the tomatillos and onions; about 10-12 minutes for the jalapeños; and about 5-6 minutes for the garlic cloves. Make sure to turn and rotate each ingredient to ensure even roasting. Remove the ingredients from the heat and let them cool until safe to handle.

2) Gently remove the husks from the tomatillos and set aside in a bowl. Grab the onion slices by the root, roughly chop them and add to the tomatillos. Next, pull off the stem from the jalapeño and discard. Using a paring knife, peel away the skins and any blackened spots. DO NOT remove the seeds or veins. Add to the tomatillos and onions. Gently remove the skins from the garlic cloves and add to the tomatillo/onion/jalapeño mixture.

3) Transfer the ingredients to the molcajete and begin to pound the ingredients slowly lest any liquids gets on you or, worse yet, in your eye. Put your weight into it: grind the ingredients together, making sure to mix them at the same time. Taste and add salt as needed, usually about 1 teaspoon. Check for your desired consistency: chunky or coarse? For a looser salsa, add some water, about a tablespoon at a time, and continue grinding with the pestle until you arrive at your desired texture. Stir with a spoon and serve in the molcajete.

4) If you’re using a blender, place all the ingredients in the container, cover, and purée. Check for your desired consistency: chunky or coarse? For a looser salsa, add some water, about a tablespoon at a time, and pulse until you arrive at your desired texture. Transfer to a small bowl and serve.

Red Salsa

Makes about 1 cup

Ingredients

  • 6-8 ounces Roma tomatoes (about 3 or 4 each)
  • 1-1.5 ounces onions (about 1/4 of an onion), sliced perpendicularly, root intact
  • 1 red jalapeño pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, skins on
  • Salt, to taste
  • Water, as needed

Method

In a dry, ungreased cast iron skillet or griddle pan over medium heat, place all the ingredients and roast until blackened: about 10 minutes for the tomatillos/tomatoes/onions; about 10-12 minutes for the jalapeños; and about 5-6 minutes for the garlic cloves. Make sure to turn and rotate each ingredient to ensure even roasting. Remove the ingredients from the heat and let them cool until safe to handle.

For tomatoes, using a paring knife, gently peel away the skins and any blackened spots and set aside in a bowl. Grab the onion slices by the root, roughly chop them and add to the tomatoes. Next, pull off the stem from the jalapeño and discard. Using a paring knife, peel away the skins and any blackened spots. DO NOT remove the seeds or veins. Add to the tomatoes and onions. Gently remove the skins from the garlic cloves and add to the tomatoes/onion/jalapeño mixture.

Transfer the ingredients to the molcajete and begin to pound the ingredients slowly lest any liquids gets on you or, worse yet, in your eye. Put your weight into it: grind the ingredients together, making sure to mix them at the same time. Taste and add salt as needed, usually about 1 teaspoon. Check for your desired consistency: chunky or coarse? For a looser salsa, add some water, about a tablespoon at a time, and continue grinding with the pestle until you arrive at your desired texture. Stir with a spoon and serve in the molcajete.

If you’re using a blender, place all the ingredients in the container, cover, and purée. Check for your desired consistency: chunky or coarse? For a looser salsa, add some water, about a tablespoon at a time, and pulse until you arrive at your desired texture. Transfer to a small bowl and serve.

 

About the Author

Food, travel & forks in the road: Culinary & Digital Media | Food Stylist | Recipe Tester | Former Social & Digital Media Coordinator, USA Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015